– Do governments spend too much on roads?

Total passenger travel by mode in Australia (billion passenger kilometres) Souce: BITRE

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) got a lot of press recently with its claim that “governments across Australia are spending at least four times more on building roads and bridges than on public transport infrastructure“.

The claim is in a new ACF report, Australia’s public transport: investment for a clean transport future, which argues for a rebalancing of the transport capital works budget, recommending that “two thirds should be spent on public and active transport measures and one third should be spent on roads”.

I agree with the ACF that more needs to be spent on public transport, but I don’t think the “roads vs public transport“ logic does justice to the complexity of the situation. There are a number of reasons why more public funds are spent constructing roads than rails.

One is that people drive much more than they use public transport. According to the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE), Australians travel almost eight times as many kilometres by car as they do by bus and rail-based public transport. The money is going where the demand is. If you accept the ACF’s numbers, public transport is actually getting a disproportionate share of public construction expenditure. Roads are needed even if travel is confined to foot and horse-drawn vehicles. The Hoddle grid in Melbourne and the avenues and streets of Manhattan were designed before cars were invented – land has limited value if it can’t be accessed.

Construction expenditure doesn’t in any event tell the whole story. Most funding for public transport comes via operating subsidies. Although getting comparable numbers is hard, Sydney University transport academic, Professor John Stanley, estimates that in states like NSW and Victoria, total public funding for public transport and roads is probably pretty nearly equal. In his 2008 report, Public transport’s role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Victoria’s Commissioner for Sustainability noted a significant shift in funding priority from roads to public transport at the State level.

Another reason roads are important is for the distribution of freight within the metropolitan area. According to BITRE, the number of tonne kilometres of urban freight transported by road within Australia’s eight capital cities in 2007/08 was more than five times higher than it was in 1971-72. There is simply no practical alternative to road for tasks like restocking those hundreds of supermarkets that supply suburban households with food and household goods.

But most importantly, roads are also extremely important for public transport. For example, in Melbourne, the Doncaster Area Rapid Transit (DART) system, the Airport-CBD Skybus service, and the city’s three new orbital Smartbus transit services, all use buses. Because they use the existing road network, these systems do not require significant new land acquisition and construction. Some trunk lines might in time justify conversion to light rail services as patronage increases, but they too can use existing roads rather than require a dedicated right of way.  Read the rest of this entry »

Why do we dislike buses?

Houston, we have a problem...

Melburnian’s seem to love trains and dislike buses. Melbourne Airport and Doncaster are both served by high-frequency bus services with a wide span of operating hours, yet large numbers of people want to spend billions replacing them with trains.

The list of criticisms of buses – relative to trains – is long. Right at the top is slowness. Buses operate in traffic, follow circuitous routes, stop frequently and idle while passengers dig out spare change to pay the driver. They’re uncomfortable too. Shelters are perfunctory, the ride is jerky and difficult if standing, seats are jammed too close together and too many drivers don’t seem to actually like passengers. And buses are unreliable. They’re invariably late and if you miss one the wait for the next one will seem interminable. If it’s night or a weekend there’s a good chance that was the last bus for the day.

Then there are systemic criticisms. Buses aren’t ‘legible’ — prospective passengers can’t see where the route goes. Sometimes routes vary over the course of a day. Buses are also impermanent. Developers are less inclined to risk investing along a route if it can be changed overnight or even removed. And there’re hard-nosed criticisms, too. Buses don’t carry many passengers. Operating costs are high because each vehicles requires a driver. Per capita GHG emissions and energy consumption are no better than cars. Engines are noisy and polluting.

As things stand, buses look pretty bad compared to trains, even given the unreliability and crowding that characterises peak hour train services in many Australian cities. Buses have a serious image problem, not just here but in many western cities.

But it’s an unfair comparison*. The key reason buses are perceived so poorly relative to rail is they are mostly assigned to marginal routes with low patronage. Operators follow indirect routes and stop frequently to maximise revenue; they reduce frequency and hours of operation to minimise costs. They can do that because their customers aren’t usually sophisticated CBD workers but travellers who are mostly “captive” to public transport. In other words buses mostly operate in a different market to trains. But it’s given them a bad reputation.

Most of the criticisms can be fully addressed, or at least softened, when the comparison is like-for-like i.e. when buses operate the sorts of long-haul commuter services that urban rail is customarily used for in Australia. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems typically have high patronage and operate in their own right of way (just like trains) or in dedicated on-road bus lanes. Stops are major interchanges spaced kilometres apart and tickets are bought before entry.

BRT vehicles can be made with the internal look and ‘feel’ of (light) rail and the jerky ride can be minimised with electric engines. Articulated buses carry large numbers of passengers and can provide better leg room. According to Corinne Mulley, Chair in Public Transport at Sydney University, Brisbane’s South East Busway carries 15,000 passengers per hour and in Bogota buses carry 45,000 per hour.  She says “US evidence points to infrastructure costs for dedicated buses being approximately one third of light rail costs”. As a point of reference, Eddington forecast that a Doncaster rail line would carry up to 12,250 one-way trips per day. Read the rest of this entry »

Why are we still so focussed on CBD rail?

Bike lanes - Hitler hates them!!

It’s bizarre, but much of the contemporary debate about expanding public transport in Melbourne is focussed on building more rail lines to the CBD even though the great bulk of jobs are now in the suburbs. It seems we’re locked in an old way of thinking when the world long ago moved on to doing things in a very different way.

The proposed Rowville, Doncaster and Melbourne Airport rail lines are evidence of our preoccupation with radial train lines. They were key issues during last year’s election campaign and the Government promised to study the feasibility of all three. They all connect to the CBD. No one refers to any of them as, for example, the proposed “Rowville to CBD” rail line – the debate is so CBD-centric that’s taken for granted.

Yet the city centre now has only a fraction of all jobs in the metropolitan area. The traditional CBD – that area bounded by Spring, Flinders, Spencer and La Trobe streets – has just 10% of all jobs in Melbourne, as mentioned here. Even the entire City of Melbourne municipality has only 19% of metropolitan jobs.

But it’s not just jobs (although they’re very important because that’s where rail does best). The vast bulk of travel by Melburnians for non-work purposes – which involves considerably more trips than the journey to work – is also not directed at the city centre. It’s local and over relatively short distances.

One consequence of  this ‘radial thinking’ mindset is the popular sentiment that ‘black holes’ in the network, like Doncaster, have to be ‘filled in’ with new rail lines to the CBD. This is despite the likelihood that the justification for a Doncaster-CBD line borders on the farcical. For example, Eddington estimated that only 8,500 workers living in the municipality of Manningham commute to the City of Melbourne, of whom 3,150 already take public transport (and this was before the new DART bus rapid transit system started!).

With 72% of jobs located more than 5 km from the CBD and 50% more than 13 km, it’s surprising that the focus of public transport expansion isn’t on improving services for cross-suburban travel.  Why, for example, isn’t there more emphasis on improving suburban orbital services and feeder services to major suburban destinations?

The fact is Melbourne’s radial train system was never intended to deliver workers to suburban jobs. The existing rail lines are the ‘spokes’ in a radial system that’s designed for the high peak loadings generated by the CBD. In contrast, economic activity in Melbourne’s suburbs is quite dispersed – no more than 20% of suburban jobs are in the largest 31 activity centres – so something far more flexible than commuter heavy rail is likely to be required. Read the rest of this entry »

Will Rowville be a Clayton(s) rail line?

Size of Clayton/Monash precinct (jobs) relative to the six designated suburban CADs

Sooner rather than later, the Baillieu Government is going to have to prove its credibility on public transport by making substantial progress on one of the rail lines it has promised. And I have an idea for where it should start.

The easiest candidate is the promised Avalon rail line because its cost is estimated at only $250 million. But as some commentators have pointed out, including me, this would almost inevitably be a jumbo white elephant. It could be a real political liability too.

If good sense prevails, the Federal Government will refuse to contribute to the project and the Government will be off the hook. The private operator might also refuse to contribute to a properly designed financial model.

The other promised rail lines – to Rowville, Doncaster and Melbourne Airport – are all subject to studies. They will all be very costly to build to an acceptable standard but it’s unlikely the electorate will be bothered by the fine print or the cost. It’s likely that as far as they’re concerned, a ‘promise’ is a promise.

I’ve indicated before that none of these lines, on the face of it, seem ready for the green light just yet (here, here and here). Unless new information is introduced or the projects are redefined, it seems to me that any objective study would have to conclude they won’t be ready for funding for some time, probably not until after 2020 (it wouldn’t be politic for any government to come out and say ‘no’ outright).

But I think the Government will have to show serious progress on at least one of these lines by the time of the next election. In my view, the preferred candidate should be the Rowville line, but in an amended form. Read the rest of this entry »

A Doncaster rail line – is this really what the Greens stand for?

In my last post about the Green’s election manifesto, a Public transport plan for Melbourne’s east, I indicated I would take a closer look at the two new rail lines the party is proposing to finance – a line to Rowville and a line to Doncaster – with its nonexistent $6 billion.

I discussed the shortcomings of the Rowville line a few months ago when the Liberals also came out in favour of it (is there a winnable seat in the vicinity perhaps?), so here I’ll just concern myself with the proposed Doncaster line.

The Greens say a line is needed because Manningham is the only municipality in Melbourne without either a train line or a tram line. And they say a rail line was promised before – plans were drawn up in 1969 but never acted on.

I’m not impressed by this logic. Do we spend billions of dollars on infrastructure because some area is “entitled” to a track even if it’s not the best solution? Should we get the 1969 freeway plan because it’s a “broken” promise too?

I’d be more impressed if the Greens had provided some justification, but they haven’t. There’s no attempt to measure expected patronage and no indication of the possible economic benefits compared to other potential investments. Nor is there any indication of the annual operating cost and the ongoing subsidy that the line would require.

The proposal is that the line would run from the CBD via a tunnel under Carlton and Fitzroy to Victoria Park station on the Hurstbridge-Epping line. It would then run along the median of the Eastern Freeway (which was designed from the outset to take a rail line) until 1.5 km east of Bulleen Rd. At that point it would run underground to a new station at Doncaster.

There are some very serious questions that need to be asked about this proposal. Read the rest of this entry »

Victorian election – why have the Greens dug a black hole?

The Green's transport plan for Melbourne's east

If you think the Greens provide a real alternative to the tired, cynical politics of Labor and the Liberals, then you might be very disappointed in the transport initiative the Green’s are promoting for the forthcoming Victorian election.

The Green’s Public transport plan for Melbourne’s east proposes a massive $6 billion program of public transport works, including a new rail line to Rowville and another along the Eastern Freeway to Doncaster. It also proposes rail duplications and triplications, new train stations, level crossing upgrades, tram line extensions, transport interchange upgrades and improvements to bus services.

The Greens clearly and loudly proclaim that the $6 billion will be found by scrapping the Government’s proposed North East Link, the so-called ‘missing link’ between the metropolitan ring road at Greensborough and the Eastern Freeway at Bulleen.

It almost sounds too good to be true. No additional funding, no new freeway and heaps of new public transport infrastructure! Trouble is, as the Greens well know, it isn’t true – there is no $6 billion to reallocate. Read the rest of this entry »